CD of the week: Wagner: Tannhäuser

Tannhäuser can be a heavy listen - but Barenboim lets the drama take off, says Andrew Clements

Wagner: Tannhäuser
Eaglen/Meier/Seiffert/ Pape/Hampson/Berlin Staatskapelle/Barenboim <BRR (Teldec, 3 CDs)

Wagner worried away at Tannhäuser for more than half his creative life. He was still actively revising the score in 1875, three decades after it had first been performed in Dresden, during the composer's seven years there as royal Kapellmeister - the period in which he also finished The Flying Dutchman, composed Lohengrin and drafted the outlines of The Ring and The Mastersingers.

As a result Tannhäuser presents more complex textual problems to performers than any other Wagner work, though basically there are two alternatives: the original Dresden version, and the substantial revision that was produced for Paris in 1861. For this studio recording, Daniel Barenboim conducts what is basically the Dresden score, except for the second scene of the first act - Tannhäuser's big confrontation with Venus and her sirens - when he opts for what was written for Paris. Leaving musicological purity aside for a moment, one can understand the dramatic reasons for Barenboim's decision to present a hybrid. The music of this crucial scene is far more erotically charged music in the revision, which was composed after Wagner had completed Tristan und Isolde.

The effect of making this compromise is to load the odds in the battle for Tannhäuser's soul in favour of Venus's seductive charms and against the Christian purity of the faithful Elisabeth, which makes the redemption of the final scene even more miraculous. And when, as on this recording, you have Waltraud Meier as Venus (who also sang the role on Bernard Haitink's fine version of the Dresden score for EMI), wonderfully seductive and caressing every phrase, the case for eroticism seems unanswerable. Up against Meier, Jane Eaglen's shrill and verbally indistinct Elisabeth really does not get much of a look-in. Between them Peter Seiffert as Tannhäuser provides what is probably as good a performance as you are likely to get from a German tenor in this hugely demanding role these days; sometimes his tone seems unvaried, and it gets edgy when pressurised, but generally his delivery is clear, direct and unflagging.

Emphasising the central polarity between good and evil, chastity and indulgence, does give the drama real momentum. Tannhäuser can seem like a very long haul, but Barenboim keeps it moving and responds shrewdly to every twist and nuance in the music. The sound he obtains from the Berlin Staatskapelle is wonderfully transparent, the solo playing is crammed with character and there is never any doubt that we are listening to early Wagner. Some passages trip along with the lightness and feathery articulation of Mendelssohn, and there's no sense of a fat cushion of sound being used to buoy up the voices. The supporting roles - led by Thomas Hampson's slightly all-purpose Wolfram, and René Pape as a solid Hermann - are thoroughly prepared too. Anyone who has been following Barenboim's Wagner cycle for Teldec are unlikely to be disappointed by this latest instalment.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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